Home Commentary Op-ed Born Again

Born Again


Feb. 1, 2008 — "Born again" is derived from Jesus' conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus as recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John: "You must be born again."
Actually, "born again" is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek. It is found only in the poorest of the English-language translations, the King James version, published in 1611. The word is another which means "born from above."
Long before former President Jimmy Carter's 1976 Playboy magazine interview gave it a kind of presidential panache, some Christians — not content to be known simply as "Christian" — distinguished themselves from the common herd by co-opting the term "born again."
Failing to take into account that the Jesus/Nicodemus conversation took place 2,000 years ago between two Jewish men, they take the term out of context, give it their own definition and try to apply it to all persons, at all times and in all places.
Who are these people who describe themselves as "born-again Christians"? Do they imply there are Christians who are not born again?
Well, yes they do, and it's more than an implication.
During the past half century, the term has become the self-designation of radical evangelicals and fundamentalists who insist that becoming a Christian can occur only as the result of an intense conversion "experience," an identifiable spiritual event in point of time and place.
Those who employ "born again" to distinguish themselves from generic or cultural Christians are fond of "testifying" about their conversion in terms of when it happened, where it happened, and their precise emotional and spiritual condition before and after they were "saved."
This concept of salvation as a total spiritual makeover places a heavy emphasis on the inherent sinfulness of human nature.
I have heard 13-year-olds, entirely untainted by worldly diversions, describe themselves as "miserable sinners" until they "accepted Christ," and the peace and joy which followed that "decision." What they are describing, of course, is their subjective response to the norms and requirements of their particular religious community. The "born-again" event transforms them from hell-bound sinners to heaven-bound children of God.
That brand of Born Again-ers vigorously denies that an individual born into a devout family, growing up absorbing the ethos of the faith and forming their life around godly precepts, might be legitimately called "Christian."
It takes a heap of parsing to get that from Jesus' words to Nicodemus.
I'm not knocking conversion experiences; I've had a few and expect to have some more. "Born again" is a good phrase, a noble sentiment, a rich mental image. It is commonplace to use the word birth as a metaphor for something other than obstetrics. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke of "a new birth of freedom."
"Born Again" must not be abandoned to the ownership of those who, like Nicodemus, really just don't get it.
The idea has an enormous appeal. New life: not the old life fumigated, retreaded, minor repairs, altered here and there to look respectable, shedding a few bad habits and acquiring a few good ones.
It's a whole new understanding of life itself, a new acceptance of who you are and how you relate to the incredible creation of which you are a part.
In 1976, Watergate conspirator and convicted felon Charles Colson published a book titled Born Again. It describes his course after his criminal imprisonment. Those who know him have watched him live out the new life he claimed to have entered more than 30 years ago. It's the same Charles Colson, but not the same old Chuck sporting some cosmetic religious changes. He continues to demonstrate that "born again" is more than a catchword of misinformed religious zealots.
And by the way, I know some born-again people who aren't Christians. Or even conventionally religious. I would be honored to be numbered among them. To have been born again — and again, and again, and again!

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

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